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Trip Report - A magical 3 week+ sojourn through Japan

Trip Report - A magical 3 week+ sojourn through Japan

Old Oct 26th, 2008, 11:54 PM
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Trip Report - A magical 3 week+ sojourn through Japan

First a little bit about ourselves. This trip started because my girlfriend was taking long service leave and asked me to go to Italy with her. I countered with “Lets go to Japan for three weeks and then you can continue on to Europe and I will return back home to husband and 3 kids”. So the die was cast.

We are both about 50 something and as you already know I have a family whereas my girlfriend is single. We have known each other since schooldays so are pretty well aware of each others foibles and our travelling styles and interests are fairly similar. The last time we travelled together was to France about 5 years ago.

The first hiccup in our plans was that, in light of the escalating cost of fuel, Qantas cancelled the direct Melbourne/Tokyo route completely on which we were booked. Of course, that meant hundreds of other people were also having to rebook as well with whom to compete. Our concern was organising it so that we were still on the same plane. Our bookings were independent of each other, I was using Frequent Flyer points (hard to get the plane you want at any time) and my friend was on an ultra cheap deal with Finnair which likely meant she wasn’t at the top of any list as to priority. Fortunately Qantas were really quite accommodating and flights rebooked without any real angst.

A quick run down of itinerary for those who want to know if this trip report is going to cover places they are interested - Kiso Valley (Tsumago/Magome), Kyoto, Himeji, Miyajima, Okayama, Kurashiki, Shiraishi Island, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, Takayama, Matsumoto and Tokyo.

There aren’t going to be any wonderful restaurants reviews as for the most part we ate quite simply. In light of the fact that my friend was going to be travelling for the better part of three months, not to mention the Aussie dollar started to nosedive about 5 weeks before we left, we had to contain our costs. For us, seeing Japan was more important that eating our way around Japan.

Our accommodation covered pretty well everything on offer in Japan from a $25 a night minshuku, typical Japanese business hotels, 4 star western hotels, modern and traditional ryokans plus a one night splurge at the very upmarket Iwaso Ryokan on Miyajima.

We had an overnight flight from Australia so arrived at Narita early morning. We were through immigration very quickly and found the booth for the Airport Limosine Bus quickly. We got tickets to the Grand Prince Akasaka and picked up a rental phone from Softbank. Getting a rental sounded like a really good idea at the time so I could contact my family at home, but this phone ended up becoming the bane of my life.

The bus trip intoTokyo of course took the better part of two hours, but the bus taking you direct to the hotel was a real plus. Having to battle the trains and the subway with luggage, not really knowing exactly where the hotel would be in relation to exiting the subway, was just something we didn’t need to work out after an all night flight.

Both of us were just amazed at how big Tokyo is. It seemed to go on forever. In fact, throughout our trip we could never get over how just how built up the developed areas of Japan are. Coming from Australia we are a lot more used to city or town, absolutely nothing for quite some time, another town, nothing etc. What Japan considers to be a “small” town was to us a city for the most part. Of course there are undeveloped parts of Japan which are beautiful and pristine and you could see mountains in the background wherever we were but this certainly struck us. In Australia it is just not possible to travel for hours on end on a train and it is built up all the way, such as Tokyo through to Hiroshima.

After leaving our luggage at the Hotel we headed out to the Ginza area. Enjoyed just meandering around and was quite excited the first time I saw a group of women wearing kimono(e)s. Can someone tell me what is the correct plural for kimono? I had of course hoped to see some women in kimonoes but was quite surprised at the number of times we did during the course of our trip. Whilst hardly common it certainly was not uncommon either.
Although neither of us are really into shopping, and certainly can’t afford designer labels, we checked out some of the exclusive label shops. Warning, don’t try to take a photo in the Chanel shop. They don’t like it - but of course they were extremely polite about telling me “no”.

From the moment we arrived at the airport it was wonderful to see that so many people in the service industries do really bow to you. It really made us a feel that we had headed off to a completely different culture.

For lunch we decided to try out a small Japanese restaurant we saw down in a basement. It was only after we sat down and saw the menu did we realise that we are completely unable to differentiate between Chinese script and Kanji script, so we celebrated our first meal in Japan by having a Chinese meal.

Before we left I had taken the precaution of getting a card printed up which stated in Kanji that I was allergic to mushrooms which I duly showed each time we had a meal. Having shown the card, the waitress indicated there were no mushrooms in my meal. When it arrived about 15 minutes later it looked wonderful with three different types of mushrooms on top. Fortunately my girlfriend’s meal was mushroom free so we simply swapped and quite enjoyed each other’s meal.

Actually this was the only time I had trouble and the card was a godsend because mushrooms are very popular in Japan and most of the wait staff had either very limited or no English at all. All I had to do was hand over the card and they would give a big smile of understanding and let me know if my choice of dish was OK. If anyone else has allergies I ordered the card through www.selectwisely.com.

We were both blown away by the variety of food available in the basement of the large department stores. There were quite a number of products that we couldn’t even guess what they were or would taste like. It was experience in itself just to wander around them. It is something you must do. The packaging up of some of the produce was wonderful to behold but also incredibly wasteful. A woman bought a cake (family size) which was then boxed up in cardboard, which I expected, but it was then packaged in a larger box with padding around it so it couldn’t move, then placed inside a paper bag which was obviously made to fit the dimensions of the box and, finally as it was raining, completed covered in a purpose made plastic bag so nothing was exposed to the rain except for the handle for which small slits had been made.

When we finally returned to the hotel we were very pleased with our room (booked for an excellent price through Expedia). The room was a good size, especially for Japan, and we had 2 kingsize single beds. Wonderful view of the lights of Tokyo and, of course, we got to play with a high tech style toilet with all its various options that we had heard about. My friend is determined to buy one if she ever finds them in Australia!

Had a wonderful walk in the evening around the environs of the hotel. Lots of small shops and restaurants, neon lights and people, even a small local shrine and cemetery. Pop into a Pachinko bar to see gambling Japanese style. Lots of bright flashing lights and the noise levels are deafening.

For the next instalment we head off to Kiso Valley for “old” Japan.


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Old Oct 27th, 2008, 03:24 AM
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Great report Shandy. Perhaps the one waitress was on mushrooms.
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Old Oct 27th, 2008, 09:01 PM
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Sounds like a fun trip so far. Kimono plural in Japanese would be, I think, kimono. In American English it would be kimonos. Good that your allergy is a visible one.

I had the same impression of Tokyo, when taking the bus from Shinjuku to Narita Airport - that the city just kept going on and on.
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Old Oct 27th, 2008, 11:21 PM
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Colduphere, I hadn't considered your suggestion but I like the sound of it. May be I have been missing out all these years because of my allergy - a few magic mushrooms could really liven things up.

Mrwunrfl - I was just about to post the next part of my report when I saw your comment. You are certainly one of those persons who deserve a thanks for help in organising this trip.
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Old Oct 27th, 2008, 11:22 PM
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I must start off by apologising. The first thing I meant to say at the start of my report was a big thank you all those Fodorites who helped in planning our trip, whether it simply was through info gleamed from their own trip reports or those who answered particular questions. This forum is an amazing resource. There is virtually always someone out there who knows the answer to your query. My husband thinks that I am addicted to this site and if I read a list of indicators of what constitutes an “addiction” he may well be right. I should also note that www.japan-guide.com was also a great help in planning the trip as well.

I mentioned that the rental phone I hired from Softbank was the bane of my life. It seemed a really good idea at the time. I was given the phone number before I left so I could advise those likely to want to contact me, the daily rental charge was quite cheap and there was no cost to me in receiving either texts or phone calls. Charges for me to phone home were steep, but the idea was that I simply would ring and say “Call me back”. They then rang the mobile using Skype so there was no charge to either of us – the perfect solution.

The reality was a little different, some of which was my own ineptness, some of which was the phone. When we first got to the hotel in Tokyo I thought I better ring or text to let our families know we had arrived safely. Although there was an instruction book with the phone it did not give any details of what buttons to press for texting. It was quite different to any previous mobile phone I had and I couldn’t work out the button to press for a space and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get some letters to come up. I decided that it would be better to wait until evening when I could take my time. Come evening I wasn’t really doing a lot better. (Eventually I did work out how to send a proper text but that was several days later after quite a bit of trial and error). I managed to get a rather garbled message together with no spaces and some missing letters but it was enough, but then I was unable to send it. I knew all the correct codes to get to Australia but it just wouldn’t go through. This in fact remained the case throughout the trip. I was able to do a “reply” to a text that had come in but seemed unable to send a text that I had initiated myself. Quite a number of the texts that I had sent were not received by my husband although they were definitely listed in my “sent” box not “out” box. The battery itself must have been rather past its use by date because sometimes by the time I I typed up a longer text, it would then be too low on battery to send it.

After I had given up that night I decided I had better charge the battery but then realised I couldn’t. The charger they had given me didn’t fit into the power point as there were no “prongs” to insert. Both my friend and I could only guess that it was some special sort of charger to connect to a laptop or something similar. By the next morning the phone was completely dead. I thought I would have to find a Softbank shop to ask for help but didn’t see one that morning as we headed off to Tokyo Station and it wasn’t until we got to Kyoto 2-3 days later that I had an opportunity to look for one. When we arrived at Kyoto we asked the concierge where to find a Softbank shop. She told us but then said the staff there had no English and what was the problem. I told her I couldn’t charge the phone and showed her the charger. She looked at me strangely then took the charger off me and simply pulled the fully inset metal section upwards and lo and behold you have a proper plug. We both burst our laughing and then she joined in. I have never seen a plug which could do this before and it hadn’t occurred to us that the metal section could even be moved. I am sure she thought we must have been very technologically deficient. Well at least I could charge it but it continued to be a bug bear.

We were heading out from Tokyo this morning (spending time there again at end of trip) and had no trouble getting the subway to Tokyo Station. Fortunately no change was required and because it was a public holiday the subway was not at all crowded. At Tokyo Station we then had to find the office to validate our 3 week Rail Pass. We would not have saved a lot of money by using the rail pass because we chose on several occasions to use bus instead in order to better suit our itinerary. Also we needed to get a full 3 week pass rather than a 2 week because there were a couple of places we wished to be on specific days and that didn’t make for the most cost effective route choice. Regardless of this, the JR Pass was wonderful because it was just so easy.

When planning our itinerary I had extensively used www.hyperdia.com for our all train info. I found this to be an excellent resource. I had typed up a spreadsheet which listed all the trains. times, stops etc that we wanted to use during the trip. This sheet became probably the most important thing we were carrying around apart from passport/money. We knew exactly what time the trains left, what changes to make, platforms numbers, train names and numbers and arrival time, how many inbetween stations, name of station one stop prior to getting off etc . At a couple of the very small stations that we went to where the staff had no English I just simply got out the sheet and pointed out the name and time of the train we wanted and that solved all problems.

The efficiency of the Japanese rail system is fantastic. When a train says it is leaving at 6.03 it leaves at 6.03, and don’t get on a train sitting on the platform at 6.01 without checking because it may well not be yours. It was not unusual at the larger station for a train to be leaving every few minutes. There were plenty of staff around and without exception we found them to be extremely helpful. They could certainly teach my home town a thing or two, where some suburban stations are now unmanned during non-busy periods and the ticket inspectors attitudes can leave a lot to be desired on occasions.

The only real trouble we had was on arriving at Tokyo Station it literally took us half an hour to find the office at which to activate the JR Pass, despite being given a map and stopping to ask for directions several times. Once found, there was no problem though.

We had about an hour to kill before we caught the train so we decided to pick up some food for breakfast and lunch on the train. It wasn’t too long before the Daimaru dept store was due to open at 10am so we stood outside because we had heard about how all the staff bow to everyone as they enter. This they certainly did, not only at the actual entrance door but at each of the individual food counters.

Where we were heading to today was the towns of Tsumago and Magome. These places were two of the towns on the old post road (horse & buggy days) heading over the alps to the other side of Japan. When the railways were built they bypassed these towns and they fell into obscurity and neglect. It is only in the past 30-40 years that they have become popular again as probably amongst the most authentic of villages typifying “old” Japan. There is also a walking trail (about 7 km) connecting the two towns called the Nakasendo Trail.

Whilst on the train we met a Japanese couple who told us they were also going to Tsumago and when we got off they made sure of where the bus was, asked the name of our accommodation and let the bus driver know. This resulted in the bus driving being very nice to us and dropping us off about 20 metres away from our minshuku (B&B) instead of at the bus stop. This was all very nice except that we hadn’t realised this (the bus driver had no English) and it took us about 1/4hr walking up and down, stopping to ask for directions before we found our place. The minshuku incidentally does not have any English signage at all to help you out.

Our booking was for 2 nights at Shimosagaya which is a very traditional minshuku (booked through Japanese Guesthouse site), I really enjoyed our time there. Of all the places we stayed this would have been the most authentic in terms of being traditional Japanese. It is a family run home (owners have virtually no English) and the house is about 150 years old. All the guest rooms are upstairs up a steep and narrow staircase. It’s amazing how just two days of climbing up and down those stairs can improve your thigh muscles! The bedrooms have traditional tatami mats and whilst not big, are not particularly small either. You need to share the one bathroom with the other guests (I think there 4 rooms altogether) but there are two separate toilets (hi tech western fortunately).

I think that by the time we left they must have been muttering to themselves about the uncouthness of those foreigners. On the first evening I went downstairs to have a shower and when I opened the door to the bathroom, I thought “Oh – NAKED MAN”. I quickly shut the door and disappeared upstairs again. Of course that was who I sat next to the for dinner but he seemed quite unfazed about it all, so I didn’t feel too embarrassed. The owner must have realised what had happened because she came upstairs about 15 mins later to indicate that the bathroom was free. She then had a minor stroke because my girlfriend had got out the futons and was now lying on top of one, but without a covering sheet. So whilst I went and had a shower she raced around setting up the futons correctly. We realised afterwards that they would have set up the futons for us whilst we were having dinner. My other “’lese majeste’ was the following night at dinner when I accidentally knocked over a bowl of miso soup which then dripped off the edges of the tables onto the beautiful tatatmi matting
underneath and we all scrabbled around trying to clean it up before it had a chance to stain the matting.

The meals were served downstairs on the very low tables with just a cushion to sit on. The meals themselves were beautifully presented, about a dozen small dishes with a little bit of this and that, each time with rice and miso as well. I really enjoyed the meals although there were a couple of things I couldn’t really come at, in particular a grey soft squelchy vegetable dish. I think it was some sort of root vegetable. It wasn’t so much the taste as the consistency that I didn’t like. My friend declined the fried crickets, but I quite enjoyed them – nice and crunchy. Both dinners and breakfasts were different each time so you got to try a lot of different things. We were not given any option as to what time to eat breakfast or dinner so we had to fit in with their plans – not that we found this to be any sort of problem.

The town of Tsumago is absolutely delightful. You feel as though you have stepped back in time a couple of hundred years. From the main street you cannot see any power lines, all the electric lights are enclosed inside a lamp so they just have a soft glow and there is not one modern building in the main part of the village. It is all just beautiful old wooden constructions. There were a number of shops to browse through and several places where you could examine the architecture of the buildings more closely. It was a beautiful day weather wise and we just ambled around slowly enjoying the village and the sunshine.

After dinner we went out again, wearing the traditional yukata supplied by the minshuku and enjoyed seeing the town again after all the day trippers had disappeared. It was lovely and peaceful and there was a real feeling of serenity. We ran into the Japanese couple from the train. The wife was extremely giggly and was insistent that my girlfriend try on her sandals, despite the fact that there was no way her feet would fit into them. The husband just said “too much sake” which explained much. He also told us how it is traditional for every establishment to have their own pattern/design on a yukata which, among other things, make it easier for the police/locals to take those “sake affected” guests back to their home for the night when they have forgotten where they are staying!
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Old Oct 28th, 2008, 07:30 AM
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I am so enjoying this report as I have had to cancel or rather postpone my upcoming trip to Japan so I am again living vicariously through other travelers.
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Old Oct 28th, 2008, 03:43 PM
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Mara I am sorry to hear that your trip has been put off. I do hope that it is just a postponement, and not a long one at that.

I was really very fortunate in terms of the timing of my trip. Whilst I was away my mother's health deteriorated quite a lot. If I hadn't been due to leave until say, next week, I would have been in a terrible quandry as to what to do. I would have felt that I couldn't leave her as she needs extra support at the moment. Then there would have been leaving my girlfriend in the lurch if I had stayed. She couldn't have postponed her trip because it is all tied in with her long service leave and the plans she had made for Europe with another friend. However, as said, fortunately I didn't have to make a decision.

Any way, keep dreaming Mara, you will get there eventually if you have the determination.
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Old Oct 28th, 2008, 04:28 PM
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I was awake the next morning at 6am and it was just perfect because I could hear the temple gongs being sounded. They were quite soft as it was coming from some distance away and it gave me a great feeling of calm and serenity.

We spent the day doing the Nakasendo walk along the valley. The weather was perfect and we first took the local bus from Tsumago to Magome which I think was about a half hour drive. Magome is a bit bigger than Tsumago and also delightful. We spent the whole morning poking around the town.

The variety of vacumn packed pickles. vegetables and other delicacies on sale were extraordinary. We noticed throughout Japan that it is very common to have tasting bowls set out so that you could sample the choices. We did in fact try a few, some we liked, some we didn’t, and there were a number that even after trying we still couldn’t guess what they were.

Once again, there were lovely wooden buildings all over the place. Water was gushing down the gutters in the purpose made little channels. Apart from Tokyo and Kyoto I think every place we visited had canals or very large gutters with water constantly running. I can only come to the conclusion that Japan must have an incredibly high rainfall, with this much water around and this is after summer. Back in Australia, Melbourne is entering its 13th year of drought which is hitting us badly. There has been a huge amount of discussion as to how best deal with this. The government has recently announced a very large desalination plant is to be built but there is a lot of dissension about this. I think I have discovered the answer, we just need a very large pipe running from Japan to Australia. However, I will let someone else work out the logistics though.

After we had lunch on the balcony of a simple little café but with the most amazing views over the alps we went to the Tourist Office. The first part of the walk is really quite steep and we knew that there was no way my friend could manage it. Following some advice from this board we decided to get a taxi to take us to the top of the pass and we would start walking from there. There was only one girl working in the tourist office and she had no English at all. She did recognize the word ‘taxi’ which seems to be fairly universal and after my friend drew some pictures of towns and hills, she understood what we wanted. (If I ever play a game of Pictionary I have to her on my side – she must be awesome at it). A long telephone conversation ensued and I thought this isn’t sounding good. She eventually hung up, picked up a set of keys and motioned us to follow her. We went outside and we are thinking that surely she isn’t going to drive us herself but that is exactly what she did! As mentioned she was the only person working in the tourist office and she just simply left it completely open. It is not just a small place with just a few pamphlets but quite substantial with a number of things for sale inside. She then bundled us into the back of her car and drove us to the top of the pass. The kindness of the Japanese is absolutely amazing. It would have been the better part of 20 mins before she finally got back to the Tourist Office itself. My friend had taken with her a number of pens which were highly decorated in a traditional Aborginal design which she then gift wrapped and kept at the bottom of her handbag. It was lovely to be able to hand over something small like that for these unexpected kindnesses as a way of saying thankyou.

We thoroughly enjoyed the walk. We had the entire afternoon so just ambled along taking our time. We followed the river, passed through wooded sections, a bamboo grove, saw a couple of delightful waterfalls, rice paddies and some very traditional houses. We were quite stuck by the number and variety of flowers that were out, you would have thought it was spring rather than autumn. I think we probably only passed about 10 people during the whole of the walk. Our timing was impeccable (by luck). As the previous day had been a public holiday there no doubt would have been a lot more people doing the walk but we had it to ourselves. If you are going, I would suggest you try and avoid a weekend if possible as well as it is a popular weekend destination for the Japanese.

It was dinner back at Shimsogaya again that night and another wander around the town in the evening. We met a couple of Dutch girls who had been travelling non-stop around the work for nearly 9 months and they said that Japan was their favourite destination so far.

I can’t tell you how highly I would recommend these two towns for those wanting to experience the quintessential old Japan. I said to my girlfriend on our final night that I hoped we hadn’t down ourselves a disservice by coming here first, that everything else would be a let down afterwards. Fortunately this wasn’t the case but these couple of days remained as one of the highlights of our trip, possibly even “the” highlight. If you should go, do make sure you that book accommodation with the meal package included. Whilst there are a number of places open during the day to eat, certainly in Tsumago, there was nowhere to eat at night.

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Old Oct 28th, 2008, 05:16 PM
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Thanks, Shandy. It's a long story but briefly, when I went to Japan last year I fell on the first day and broke my fifth metatarsal and had to go home. Now I have a knee problem and don't want to go starting off bad. ;-)

Oh, are there pictures to go along with the trip report? Not that your descriptions aren't wonderful, but pictures are fun too.
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Old Oct 28th, 2008, 06:24 PM
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Shandy, very interesting report. Have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Would love to find out what did you purchase during your trip around Japan. I loved their tiny dishes so much, that I bought a variety of beautifully designed tiny bowls which I use now for a small scoop of ice cream.
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Old Oct 28th, 2008, 06:42 PM
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I'm loving this. Great work. Great trip report. You're making me feel I gotta go. Keep it coming.
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Old Oct 29th, 2008, 06:17 AM
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Mara,

What incredibly bad luck to hurt yourself on the first day of your trip and have to go home. I would have been crying buckets all the way home and for some time thereafter.

My 3 kids still haven't forgiven me that when we were in Paris several years ago we did not allow them to go ice-skating at the top of the Eiffel Tower. None of them had ever tried ice-skating before and as we were at the start of a six week round the world trip, we were terrified that one of them would break a leg and wreck all our plans.

Hopefully the knee issue goes away. I was a bit wary about my own knees before leaving. I have had arthritis in both knees for several years. A little over a month before we left my 17 year old daughter decided that it would be a really good mother/daughter bonding idea for us both to do a month "boot camp" at 6am in the morning at a gym together. I rather rashly agreed.

At the very first session they did a fitness assessment. I didn't feel quite so bad when I realised
that there were about six people who were obviously more unfit than me. When we back for the next session two days later all those people who I considered definitely worse than me didn't return
When they said boot camp they really meant boot camp and I ended up with my knees giving me more trouble than I had had for several years. Fortunately in the week between the end of the boot camp and actually leaving they improved again and I really didn't have any problems whilst away.

I do of course have a ton of photos of my trip but I haven't the slightest idea how to put them on the net. I will ask one of my kids how to do it.

Ileen

I am not really a shopper whilst I am on holidays, but I did pick up a couple of secondhand obi which I am using as table runners. A bought a lovely pendant from the goldleaf in Kanazawa plus a fabulous painting for peanuts in one of the most cluttered secondhand book stores I have ever seen.

I was rather keen on taking back some crockery myself but decided it was too big and breakable so contented myself with some really fancy chopsticks for everyone instead.

It is a tradition for me to buy something to hang on the Christmas Tree from every country I visit so I bought one of those tiny little faceless red dolls which are absolutely everywhere plus a very small bell from a temple we visited in Nara. It brings back a flood of memories everytime you put up the tree.

Dogster - Thank you for your kind comments. I hope I can keep you entertained. Will be doing Kyoto next.

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Old Oct 29th, 2008, 06:41 AM
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shandy - Yes, bad luck...maybe some type of jinx. ;-) I just remembered that I had to cancel another trip to Japan in '05 as I came down with shingles shortly before my departure. That was my trip to Kyoto which I was able to do in '06.

There are many free websites where you can easily upload your photos assuming they are digital. Looking forward to seeing them when you get a chance....
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Old Oct 29th, 2008, 05:52 PM
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shandy, thanks for the great report! I am on the road so apologize for the late response. I am enjoying your report and look forward to more helpful information from your journey thru Japan. Sorry to hear about your displeasure with Softphone......try rentaphone Japan next time if there is one

Aloha!
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Old Oct 29th, 2008, 10:35 PM
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Thanks, shandy, I'm enjoying your report. You must have laughed when you realized that the minshuku was very near where you were dropped off.

You are right about not just hopping on a train. I did that once at Kyoto station, coming from Kanazawa and heading to Tokyo. Turned out to be a Nozomi. I sat in the area at the end of the car, near the exit. Showed the conductor my JR Pass and explained my mistake and that I would get off at Nagoya, the next stop. I am certain that he didn't understand English, but must have gotten the gist, as he didn't make an issue of it (he could have made me pay a fare since the train was not covered by the Pass).

Anyway, glad to hear that you liked Magome and Tsumago. I learned recently that I won't have to cancel my trip to Japan in three weeks. I'll take yet another look at going to the Kiso Valley.
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:36 AM
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KYOTO (decided I should pop in some titles in case anyone is looking for a particular destination)

It was off to Kyoto this morning, but first it was breakfast at Shimosagaya. Amongst all the dishes was a fried egg. Chopsticks were the only utensils supplied and I just couldn’t really think of how I was going to manage a fried egg with them, so as I had beaten everyone else downstairs by a couple of minutes I quickly picked up in my fingers and wolfed it down before anyone could see. I kept waiting to see how the Japanese actually did eat theirs with chopsticks, but unfortunately they still hadn’t got around to it until after we head left. Perhaps there were waiting for us to leave so they could do the same 

We didn’t have any trouble catching the bus back to Nagiso to catch this train. We had been a bit concerned because the previous day we had waited for the bus to Magome and it didn’t come. The tourist office had provided us with a timetable in English and some of the bus times were marked with the stars and others circles. The stars and circles indicated whether the bus ran every day or was just on weekends/public holidays. It was a good system except that when they had typed it up they had incorrectly labelled the circles and stars so it was actually the reverse. We were therefore waiting for a non-existent bus.

We were in Kyoto by lunchtime and had booked 5 nights at the Granvia Hotel at the station. Once again I had picked up an excellent deal on the internet on the hotels own website. I had been watching it for some time and jumped and made a booking when a really good deal presented. It was for a 3+ night booking in a superior room. We were extremely pleased with the hotel. Our room and bathroom was a good size and staff were very good. There are lots of restaurants to choose from but we didn’t actually eat at any of them, too pricey. When choosing the hotel for Kyoto I had been undecided as to whether we should go for nearer the old area or the station.

I think that if you only have 2-3 days perhaps the old area might be better. Of course many of Kyoto’s attractions are spread out but if you only have a limited time you can cover quite a few things within a shorter period of time. If you have a longer time period, and especially if you are intending to do day trips as well, I would go for down by the station. It was extremely convenient having the bus terminal at our door to take you to the assorted attractions, never had to transfer on a bus to get where we needed to go, and every other bus goes to the station so no trouble about returning regardless of where you ended up at the end of the day/night. For our couple of day trips, obviously all we had to do was catch the lift downstairs and straight on to the platform. For the bus buy a ¥500 day ticket. They are available at the bus station, tourist office and I think some hotels sell them as well. Kyoto does not have an extensive subway system like Tokyo and the main form of public transport is the buses.

Kyoto Station itself is a huge development with lots of shops, a large Isetan department store and lots of restaurants to choose from up on, I think, the 11th floor. We ate up there several times and particularly enjoyed the Spanish restaurant. There is also a fabulous food hall in the department store so a couple of times we bought food there and took it to our room. Hopefully you are a bit more observant than me though. I saw big woks with some sort of teriyaki chicken and bought some of that. When I actually opened it upstairs it wasn’t piping hot as I had expected but quite cold, those flames underneath the work were fake.

After booking in at the Granvia we went to the Tourist Office at the station to ask how to get to the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. We had already said that we had just arrived in Kyoto so she looked rather stunned that this was the very thing we were interested in seeing. It is considered rather a “lesser” shrine in terms of tourist attractions. However we explained that we wanted to attend the flea market at the shrine which is only on once a month on the 25th. so things became clearer.

The flea market was good fun. As this market is really for the locals it gave us a chance to see what is on sale for them. There were hand made good, lots of cheap merchandise and a plethora of food stalls and a number of stalls to keep the kids entertained – the Japanese version of the ball in the clown’s mouth, a shooting gallery which looked like something I might have seen when I was little kid at a country fair. Forget the fancy moving ducks, it was just small packets of lollies, cans of drinks, little toys sitting on 3 tiered benches at which to take pot shots. At the food stalls, quite a number of them were cooking round ping-pong sized balls in griddle pans. We weren’t sure what they were but decided we had better try them as they were so popular (in fact we ended up seeing these all over Japan). We discovered they were squid balls but I can’t say we liked them. They were very soft and squishy inside. We did enjoy some chicken yakitori sticks later.

For a shrine that is pretty low on the ‘go see’ list Kitano is really very impressive. We thoroughly enjoyed it. It was not crowded at all, despite it being a market day and there weren’t all that many westerners around at all. It is quite large and we felt the ¥300 to go see the Treasure Room was worthwhile – a small display of samurai outfits and an excellent display of painted scrolls. The mural down in the basement room is very good. There were several ceremonies going on whilst we were there which were fascinating to watch. The shrine is dedicated to someone who was amongst other things a great scholar and there were a number of school children who had come to ask for good luck in their exams.

Later on we headed over to Pontocho Alley area. It was still too early to eat tea but we found, one block over a tea room on the first floor of a building. We could see the glow of the lamps from the street and ventured up. It was a great find. We spent a very enjoyable half an hour or so over our cup of tea, with rice crackers thrown in to nibble on and listening to the jazz music. We were the only people there during that time and we failed to see how they could make much money at all as they didn’t do any meals or alcoholic drinks. A couple of nights later we returned as we had enjoyed it so much. The owners recognized us immediately. Simply because I liked the place so much and I thought that may be they needed the money I ordered an icecream sundae as well. The cup of tea came promptly but it was nearly half an hour before the sundae turned up. We kept wandering what they were doing. We were once again the only people there, although another group eventually turned up. When the sundae turned up the answer as to why so long was self-evident. It was a work of artistic genius. The sundae was about a foot tall and they had created a prawn out of apple slices, one slice built on top of each other. It looked absolutely fabulous. Given that the sundae actually cost less than the cup of tea, this was obviously not a standard sundae. I wish had taken note of the name of the place but unfortunately I didn’t think of it at the time.

Pontocho Alley was a delight to walk along in the evening. It was bustling with people and the entrances to many of the restaurants were exquisite. I can’t recall ever simply taking photos of restaurant entrances themselves before. We eventually chose a very small place, literally just 6 people max who sat at the bar. Once again we wondered how they could make money. We assume that rental cost must be very high in Pontocho Allley and they certainly weren’t trying to hustle people out after they had finished eating so there was space for more diners. We had a simple but good meal of a smoked salmon salad and fish and the whole thing only cost about $35 for the two of us including the cover charge. We were subsequently told that was incredibly cheap for a meal in Pontoncho Alley. Certainly a lot of the places we walked past we didn’t dare enter as they looked way out of our price range.

When we got back to the hotel I spoke with my husband and he told me not to hurry home, the dog was now sleeping on my side of the bed! Problem is, now that I have returned he still wants to. I’ll let you decide if that means the dog wants to stay or my husband wants the dog to stay 

The following day I had organised a goodwill volunteer guide to take us around Kyoto. www.geocities.jp/jellybeans_no_nakama/index.html I have never done this before so wasn’t quite certain what to expect. We were contacted by email and asked a few questions about what we were interested in and gave us a couple of proposed itineraries. I had assumed that she would spend about 3-4 hours with us but Kaori was absolutely amazing. She arrived at the hotel at 10am as arranged and it was about 7pm when she said goodbye to us. It was a fabulous day. The sites she took us to were excellent but the best part was simply talking to her and finding out about the Japanese way of life. She was a housewife about our age and was more than happy to answer all our questions and obviously keen to learn about our life and Australia. Kaori told us that her husband leaves for work each day at 8am and generally doesn’t return until 10pm. She said working this long is expected. As he must be in his 50’s, possibly nearer 60, you would not have thought he was working those sort of hours because he was trying to make a name for himself in the company. It was also interesting that she had no idea how much tax they paid or what medical insurance might cost them, despite being an obviously intelligent woman. The service was completely free apart from having to pay any admission fees for her and we bought lunch for her. I had also brought a gift from home which she was obviously pleased to receive.

Kaori took us to Nijo Castle which us get to see a real “nightingale” floor. Both of us really enjoyed the series of books which start with ‘Across the Nightingale Floor” We went to a kimono show (free), visited a small shrine, Nishiki market with its incredible display of food, Kiyomizudera Temple, Yasaka Shrine and a walk through the older areas of Kyoto. Kiyomizudera is a definite must see as a temple. It was just getting on for dusk as we arrived and it looked lovely with the lamps aglow. Kiyomizudera has a large wooden balcony which overlooks the valley below and Kaori told us that it was a famous saying in that to make a decision about which there is no turning back is to jump off Kiyomizudera’s balcony. We also enjoyed going through Nishiki market with Kaori as she was able to explain to us what a lot of the food was used for or how it was made/prepared.

Other places that my friend and I visited in Kyoto was the Sanjusangendo temple with its 1001 life sized statues of Kannon, the Godess of Mercy. It is housed in the world’s longest wooden building and rather mesmerizing. It is very different to any other temple that we saw in Japan and you should certainly try and include it if you can. We thoroughly enjoyed the Philsopher’s Walk. It must be absolutely spectacular when the leaves have changed colour. We never got across to the Golden temple and you can tell that we were becoming a bit templed out (had been to Nara the day before) because we didn’t even bother to go see the Silver Pavilion despite it being right there in front of us and a World Heritage listing to boot. We did stop at Nanzenji Temple but certainly wouldn’t list it as a must see. Admittedly we didn’t pay the extra money to see the garden as were visiting Kenroukuen later in the trip and, besides, it was still raining lightly.

Had a great evening just wandering around the Gion area at night and actually saw several geisha, well 1 geisha and I think the other 2 were maiko (apprentice geisha). It must be difficult for them, the geisha in Pontocho Alley had several people who were literally taking photos of her just a foot away from her face despite it being quite evident that she did not want her photo taken. As we walked along one of the canals in the Gion area you could see across to one of the geisha houses and there were several of them kneeling at a low table and chatting together (not entertaining clients). We were rather surprised that they hadn’t simply shut the blinds as there were a lot of people stopping and staring, which included us I might say.

Next, our day trips to Nara and Arashiyama.
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:39 AM
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Hawaiiantraveler, thanks for your comment. Would love to know how many times you have been to Japan. Your knowledge of Japan seems to be encyclopaedic. Enjoy the rest of your holiday.

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Old Oct 31st, 2008, 05:51 AM
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ARASHIYAMA AND NARA

We took two day trips from Kyoto. The first one was to Arashiyama. I was very keen to do the bamboo grove walk because the pictures of it looked great and once there we decided we would do the Sagano Romantic Train and the Hozu river boat trip as well. Arashiyama was covered on our JR Pass so that was good. Had little difficulty in organising the train and boat tickets. As it was a Saturday is was quite busy but virtually all Japanese. Loved the chandelier in the very small station for the Romantic Train. The train ride was about 20 mins in open wooden carriages and was very pleasant. The valley is lovely and, once again, would be superb in another month when the autumn colours were out. Mind you, considering how many people were around that day you might not even manage to get a booking on the Romantic Trip in autumn. As it was we had to wait 1 ½ hrs because the earlier train was booked out.

Timing between the train, the bus and the river boat were all well co-ordinated. It was a touch confusing as to where to go next but we simply followed the others and that worked well The river boat takes about 20 passengers and the trip was a hoot. It took the better part of 2 hours to complete. We were the only two westerners aboard and the 3 man team (one poling, one rowing and one steering) had quite an act to keep the passengers entertained. We couldn’t understand a word but the laughter and merriment from the other passengers were so infectious that we couldn’t help but join in. The fitness level of the men must be amazing. It was bloody hard work. I had expected rowing to be the hardest, but from the amount of sweat pouring off the person poling, that was obviously the hardest Your could see why the 3 of them need to change positions every now and then. Views along the valley were good and we spotted a number of cormorants and blue herons along the way. There were several gentle rapids and periods where you just peacefully drifted along.

The walk through the bamboo grove was quite good, but I must say we never actually passed through a spot which was the one featured on many of the photos I had seen beforehand so was a tad disappointed. Plenty of people were using rickshaws to have themselves taken around. We passed a couple of spots to stop for a coffee on the way and there were plenty of shops etc in the main part of the town.

We didn’t explore either the temples or the monkey park whilst we were there. If you do the train trip do take the river trip back down if you possibly can, because that was definitely the highlight.

Our other day trip was Nara (also covered by JR Pass) and it was fabulous. Although we went for the temples it was the deer that completely won us over. I knew there were deer at Nara but had vaguely assumed they were in a fairly large park and you could wander around amongst them. We were rather stunned to find the deer were all over the place, in the park, along the side streets, crossing major roads etc. We literally would have seen a couple of hundred of them. Fortunately we had been warned beforehand not to wear ripple soled shoes – it is very hard to get the deer poo out and we were glad that we had paid heed.

The deer love to be fed and there are plenty of places to buy special biscuits for them. Hopefully someone has taken note of the nutrition content of the biscuits because they munch them down in their hundreds. Some are quite insistent about wanting to be fed so if you have smaller children keep a watch. Both of us had rather sore hips where we had been repeatedly head butted when we weren’t feeding them. When I ran out of biscuits one decided to eat my map instead and we had a bit of a tug of war as I wrested it back from him. Managed to get it back with not too much missing but then he immediately came back for seconds. This time I lost the greater part of the map which was a bit unfortunate because we got rather lost later in the day without it.

Nara was the first capital of Japan and the Todaji and Horyuji Temples are the oldest wooden building in the word dating back to the 7th century. It is really quite something. We also enjoyed the Kasuga Grand Shrine, not so much for the shrine itself but for the 3000 lanterns it contains. The museum was quite good but if you are intending to visit a major museum such as the National Museum in Tokyo you could safely give it a miss.

There is a central area with a quite a number of restaurants to choose from. We went for an Okonomiyaki (Japanese style omelette come pizza) restaurant and thoroughly enjoyed cooking it ourselves at the table.

We spent the entire day at Nara and certainly didn’t do the place justice – admittedly we spent an awful lot of time with the deer. If I ever get another chance to go I would certainly organise to spend an overnight there. I had initially been very keen to stop at Fushimi Inari on the way back but it started to rain as we were on the train and I was feeling quite foot sore, so gave it a miss. Instead of a lost opportunity I intend to consider it a reason to go back again.

Next – Miyajima with stopover at Himeji
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Old Oct 31st, 2008, 05:45 PM
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shandy, we are in the planning stages of our fifth trip to Japan next fall.

Loving all the detail in your report. We are planning to be in some of your destinations next yr so am reading your report with great interest.

Aloha!
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Old Nov 5th, 2008, 04:51 AM
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HIMEJI AND MIYAJIMA


It was only a one hour train trip to Himeji. As we had by now come to expect, the train left exactly when it said and arrived at Himeji to the minute. There was no shortage of lockers in which we could stuff our bags. For ¥600 yen we could get a locker big enough to take both our bags plus two small day packs.

It is only a 10 minute walk up to the castle along a rather nice main street. It is possible to catch a bus but it is a very easy walk. As soon as you leave the station you can see Himeji and it looks quite spectacular. You can see why it is nicknamed the ‘white egret’ castle as it does look rather like a bird about to take flight.

We enjoyed our time here and it is well worth the climb to the very top. It is quite steep climbing up and we were in awe of all the Japanese who were in their 70’s or 80’s and having no trouble.. In fact we noticed this wherever we went that older Japanese are generally much more able to climb stairs, hills etc than we would see elsewhere in the world. Our personal conclusion was that it was all those squat loos. They must give you fabulous thigh muscles and you would be exercising them every day (or at least one would hope you are exercising those muscles each day  We had on occasions wondered how the frail and sick are meant to cope with squat loos but it didn’t seem an appropriate question to ask). Don’t expect to see much in the way of furnishings at Himeji, the rooms are basically bare and it is about seeing the construction and architecture instead. View at the top of the keep is very good but once again we were amazed at the size of this ‘small town’.

After finishing at Himeji we went to Kokoen Gardens which is about 200 m away. You can buy a joint ticket for Himeji and the Garden and save a little bit of money. The gardens are lovely. It is a series of separate gardens each done in a different style. We especially enjoyed the main garden with its large pond. It was just what I had visualised a Japanese garden should look like. There is a café/restaurant there and, although we found a menu for the restaurant, we didin’t actually find the restaurant itself which seemed rather strange. Perhaps it was shut the day we were there – there were very few people around. We did come across a rather nice display of children’s kimono though. If you have the time I would certainly recommend a stop at the gardens as well.

As we walked back to the station we stopped at a secondhand book shop and the owner there told us that it was good that we had been to see Himeji as it is being shut soon for 5 years for major restoration.

It was only another hour by train onto Hiroshima. From there we picked up the local train to Miyajima-guchi and the JR ferry across to Miyajima. The place was packed with day trippers and we were glad that we had organised two nights on the island so that it gave us a chance to see the place minus them. It had started raining before we got to Miyajima and we just loved the system they had of hundreds of umbrellas being freely available to all. Pick up an umbrella and then put it in a stand at the shop/hotel/temple when you arrive. Someone else picks it up and uses it for the next destination When it is time to leave just grab a new umbrella from the stand and head off.

Our first night at Miyajima was spent at the Jukeiso Ryokan. They are a reasonable distance away from the ferry terminal so do take advantage of their free pick up/drop off service. It was a very simple matter to call them from the public phone at the terminal and they arrived 5 minutes later. On arrival we were shown up to our room and given a welcoming cup of green tea. Our room was Japanese style with tatami mats and a good size. The bathroom was small but we were to learn this is to be expected if you are not staying at a western style hotel. The room overlooked the water to the side and we could even see the torii gate lit up at night which was lovely. I had made a request for a room which overlooked the torii gate so it certainly pays to ask, especially as I noted from their own website that a torii view rooms should cost more than we paid. We had booked through Japanese Guesthouses. We did not order a meal plan so can’t comment on the quality of the food. I did use their onsen down in the basement which is quite large. It would easily take a dozen people without being crowded. There was no one there when I went so I had it all to myself. It seemed rather strange sitting on the side sitting at the side of the pool on a little stool and washing myself down first but when in Rome. Hopefully there were no CCTV cameras around as I made full use of the pool. Sat in blissful peace for a while but then tried out floating and swimming and generally making myself look a bit of an idiot.

Jukeiso is on the edge of the forest and I really enjoyed a walk through the forest early the next day to Daisho-inTemple. I didn't meet another soul (except for the odd deer) during the walk until I reached the temple. I think I only saw one other person who was obviously a tourist whilst I was there. The few others were Japanese who had actually come to make devotions. I even got to join in a Buddhist ceremony, lots of chanting, banging of drums and gongs. I noticed that offerings of canned pineapple seemed very popular. It made for a curious juxtaposition with the lovely old elaborate shrine with the very modern cans of pineapple. I enjoyed this temple much more than the famous Itsukushima Shrine, probably because it was so peaceful. At the shrine it was hard to escape the crowds, although those views of the Torii gate are hard to beat. Also watch for all the jellyfish in the water, there were hundreds of them.

If at all possible, do try and see the Torii gate at night because that is when it is at its best although the view during the day is very good as well. However, I would suggest checking on the tides if you are only able to come out for a few hours. I felt rather sorry for the hundreds of people who were heading back on the ferries to Hiroshima and had only see the Gate when the tide was out so it is sitting on the mud flats rather than ‘floating’ on the water.

There were quite a lot of deer around but certainly not in the numbers they were at Nara and these ones weren’t expecting to be fed. Absolutely loved the deer who wandered into one of the shops and snatched some fake flowers from a display. We thought it was a hoot as we watched the shop owner chase him out again. Being up in the forest and coming across the occasional deer was an absolute delight. We also saw several badgers which we had not expected at all. One just sat and stared at us for about 10 minutes whilst we sat and stared at him. I’m not sure who was getting the better deal, the badger or us. As we had never seen a badger before this was quite a treat. Are badgers known for being inquisitive?

Although it had rained in the afternoon the previous day we had woken to a superb day weatherwise and we made the most of it by going up to Mt Misen We took the bus up to the point where you catch the cable cars to the top but in fact ther cable car station turned out to be not that far away at all and we could have walked. The trip up on the cable car afforded us with fabulous views over the island, across to Hiroshima and of the Seto Inland Sea. When we got to the top we walked out of the cable car station straight into the arms of some 50 or so monkeys running around, screeching, preening, feeding (lots of babies) and having a great time grooming each other. We had no idea there would be all these monkeys around so it was a great bonus. We probably arrived about mid morning and I noticed that by lunchtime all of them seemed to have disappeared. I climbed up to the top of Mt Misen which, whilst hardly an easy stroll, wasn’t as bad as it first looked. The view over the Inland Sea only got better and better. I rather wondered if I had reached a state of grace because just as I got to the very top point the most beautifully marked butterfly landed on my shoulder and just stayed there for about 10 seconds before flying off. I also had a deer which came and walked along the track with me for a few minutes at the top which was rather special too. It is possible to get a very simple meal of ramen noodles both at the cable car station and at the very top of Mt Misen itself. When I walked back down to the cable car station I was quite hot and decided that it was time I tried one of the frozen ice with syrup confections that abound all over Japan but it was too sweet for me.

This was the night of my one big splurge at the Iwaso Ryokan which was my 50th birthday present to myself. The drop off point for the bus for the cable car is right beside Iwaso so we walked in and registered. We then caused a bit of consternation because we didn’t have any bags. We had that morning popped them into one of the lockers back at the ferry terminal and they were still there. The girl at first thought we had been collected from the ferry (as probably 99% of their guests are) and somehow our bags had got left behind. Once we explained, they simply took the locker key off us and dispatched someone to go fetch. I felt like royalty. Our room was in the new building and had the river running alongside. It was quite traditional with tatami matting and had its own bathroom, albeit very small. I must say that in view of the cost (about $500) I would have expected some good branded toiletries in the bathroom rather than huge 1 litre no name pump packs. In fact, our room at the Jukeiso the previous night had been bigger. However, staying at the Iwaso is more about the experience. The service was excellent. All the women wore traditional kimono and I got a real kick out of seeing the girls kneel down each time to open and shut the sliding the doors. We were served green tea as a welcome.

Iwaso is right on the edge of the forest and its surroundings are superb. Just waking along the river was a delight in itself and there were a number of deer wandering around. Both of us really enjoyed just simply sitting outside beside the river and soaking up the atmosphere.

The dinner in the evening was superb. It was not actually served in our room but in a spare room across the hall and whilst we were gone the futons were made up for us. There were several courses to the dinner and each was exquisitely presented. I had advised them beforehand that I was allergic to mushrooms and so separate meals had been prepared for myself and my friend. I had been asked on booking in whether we would like some wine with dinner and so had said yes. When we went into the room it was sitting on the table and on seeing it was French I thought “oh oh, how much is this going to cost?”. It was more than I probably would have paid if I had chosen something off a wine list but it was excellent and the dinner was certainly deserving of a good wine to accompany it. When we first walked into the room it was not open and after waiting a few minutes I thought I would open it myself. So, of course, as one would expect I completely botched it and ended up with half the cork stuck in the bottle. When our waitress came back she was rather horrified that I had attempted it myself and it must have taken her a good 10 minutes to finally leverage the rest of the cork out. As she had no English whatsoever, we could only shown my chagrin and embarrassment at having stuffed it up with facial expressions and give her a good clap when she finally succeeded in getting the rest of the cork out. It was a bit of a shame that she had no English at all because we would have liked to have her explain a bit about some of the dishes we were eating. Breakfast the next morning was served downstairs in the restaurant and was also excellent. Definitely go for the Japanese breakfast rather than the western breakfast.

After dinner we went down to the onsen. There is both an indoor (very hot) and an outdoor one (warm/hot). Once again there was no one else around and sitting in the outdoor onsen was fabulous. It is right beside the river which is spotlighted at night and was very peaceful. You could hear the noise of the river and rustlings of animals in the forest. Several racoons ran alongside the river whilst we were watching which just added to the magic of the evening.

All in all, we had a wonderful experience at Iwaso and I am very glad we went. If the most important thing to you is value for money than I would have to say go for Jukeiso and I am sure you will be happy. However, if you are after fabulous service and a special experience then pay the extra for Iwaso.

Next – Okayama and Kurashiki
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